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Whitewater Photography 101

Posted: 05.05.2017 by Chris Loomis

Man with kayak on rocky beach at sunset

Regina Nicolardi gives some tips on how to take better photos on the river

By Regina Nicolardi

Like many paddlers today, I am just as often scouting a rapid for photo opportunities as I am to run it. Capturing a moment on the river can provide that same feeling of accomplishment as when you stick a line. But it can also feel equally as frustrating when things unravel, and you find yourself with a memory card of images that just don't do the run justice. There are really no secrets to getting a great shot – just a general understanding of your camera and taking the time to observe a few key elements. When approaching a rapid for a photo, there are two major factors I always keep in mind. Where is my light? And where is my line?

Know the intended line your paddler will be passing through from the top to the bottom of the rapid, and how that works with where you decide to position yourself. Take time to think about the outcome you will achieve from your chosen shooting place. Will the paddler be charging at you? Will they be paddling away from you? How will the boat be angled in relation to your position? If the paddler puts the boat on edge are you going to catch the bottom of the hull or the paddler's epic ear dip? Experiment with different shooting elevations to see how standing on a tall rock produces a different aspect than down near river level. Frame the shot so the paddler passes through with a minimum amount of panning and burst. Too much of this and your camera may lag – missing the best shots because it is busy writing the files or loses focus.

Here is the same rapid on the White Salmon with two different perspectives on Dagger athlete Sam Grafton.

Next, think about how the light is working in relation to your line. Lighting is tricky to master and every situation is different, but here are a couple basics to help you get started. If you are shooting in bright sun, it’s best to have the sun at your back allowing for your subject to be directly lit. A lot of times whitewater is shot in the middle of the day when the sun is over head. This works, but it presents a lot of strong shadows and bright spots. If this is the case try tightening the shot up a little bit to give your camera a more specific area to meter. Also don’t be afraid to play with the sun, by shooting into it you can create silhouettes and solar flares. If it’s a cloudy day, or you’re deep in a gorge, light is softer and more even to work with — but because there is less it raises the potential of shooting a blurry photo. This is where learning your way around the camera’s manual mode to maximize light will make a difference.

This shot was taken in bright over head sun - I zoomed in to minimize the amount of bright spots and shadows, making the light appear more even. Dagger athlete Adriene Levknecht looks strong and although the whole drop isn’t in the frame, it eludes to something stout.

Remember, great whitewater photos don’t have to happen during the crux of the biggest drops out there. The stronger the paddler looks, the stronger the photo. Sometimes the best moments are even in the run-out, or during a portage. When deciding which photos to share, remember not every shot is a keeper. Choose your best work to present, otherwise it will be lost somewhere in a brodak album of hundreds. Have fun and be creative

Regina Nicolardi is a professional photographer, who just wrapped a five-day shoot with Dagger in the Pacific Northwest. You can see more of her work at

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Kayaking Cured What Chemo Could Not

Posted: 09.09.2015 by Chris Loomis

Although I will not get everything back that cancer stole from me, I now know that kayaking can help me reclaim some of the life I had lost.

Cancer is lonely.  Young adults affected by cancer know this all too well.  One of the biggest contributors to feelings of loneliness for young adult survivors is the lack of belonging.  It can be hard not knowing if there are others out there like you, dealing with the unique challenges a cancer diagnosis presents during the “formative” years of your life.

On September 26, 2013, just two weeks after my 24th birthday, I was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Just mere months after graduating from college, I was to be sidelined for the next 6 months to endure chemotherapy.  Choosing a battleground to fight cancer was not an easy decision.  The first cancer treatment center I visited was filled with patients two or three times my age.  Just sitting in the waiting room was enough to make me feel extremely isolated and alone.  My only other option was to be treated at a children’s hospital with kids less than half my age.  Since I still felt like a kid in my heart, the decision to battle cancer alongside other kids was a bit more comforting.  Each round of chemotherapy required me to stay in the hospital for an entire week.  Each week I lived in a hospital room alone, with only the cries of scared children filling the halls of the inpatient treatment wing, while I sat in my bed getting pumped full of life-saving drugs.  I had no one to talk to who would understand what I was going through, or so I thought.

Near the end of my treatment, a nurse working on my floor handed me a card for First Descents, an organization dedicated to providing surfing, climbing, or kayaking camps to young adults affected by cancer to empower them to reclaim their lives and connect with other survivors.  After attending a couple short overnight trips with First Descents in the year following my treatment, I decided to attend a week long kayaking trip in Bryson City, North Carolina.  I thought I was just going to meet some new people and kayak down some rivers, but my trip would have a much larger impact on me than I thought.

What you don’t expect from cancer is how much it can take away from you.  After having caner I lost physical strength, I lost a sense of identity, I lost friends, I lost confidence, and I lost the feeling of control over my life.  In short, I lost my freedom.  That’s what learning to kayak gave me; a sense of freedom.  While I am on the river, I am in control, I decide my fate, I am in charge of my destiny, and I can truly feel free.  Basically, I was hooked on kayaking the moment I first pushed out into the water.

Throughout my week with First Descents, I tried to soak up every detail I could about kayaking.  Each time we learned a new skill, I wanted to immediately move on to the next.  Luckily, one of the lead staff members for FD named Adriene, recognized this eagerness and tenacity in me, and took me under her wing to help me discover kayaking.  To the disbelief of her, and everyone else on the water, I was able to roll on my first day!  At that moment I was filled with emotions that had become unfamiliar to me in recent history.  I finally felt like I was good at something and I had a sense of accomplishment like I’ve never know before.  At last, I felt like I belonged.  While I was on the water, I no longer felt out of place and sharing that feeling with other survivors only helped make it feel like home.

One day during camp, Adriene (who also happens to be a professional kayaker) told me I should compete in the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado.  I had only been kayaking on the river a few days and the thought of actually racing sounded a little crazy to me, but since I was not willing to let this new found freedom slip away, I decided to do it.  One short week after leaving camp, with only three days on whitewater under my belt, I was in Vail getting ready for the Kayak Down River Sprint.  I was filled with nervous excitement from the moment I arrived on Friday, up until the start of the race Saturday morning.  Besides chemotherapy, this was probably the only other time in my life where I thought I might have a heart attack. 

Fortunately for me, Adriene was competing at the games as well and volunteered to help give me some coaching before the race.  After getting geared up Friday afternoon, we decided to do a run down Gore Creek where the race was to be held.  Finally, after six long days of waiting, I was back on the water with a paddle in my hands.  Although seeing the course gave me a little more confidence, I was still just as nervous for race day.  I knew that in the morning I would be on my own and would be paddling alone for the first time.

The weather was sunny and calm the morning of the race and I found myself using the same pep talk I would use before going into the hospital: I was going to do this thing one way or the other so I might as well give it everything.  Before I knew it, I was on the water paddling as hard as I could, just trying to stay straight down the course.  Just like in the hospital, I was alone again, racing towards the finish, but this time I was in control of my fate and it was up to me to decide how I would survive the day.  Surprising to me, I finished the race without a scratch, and managed to place 41 out of 47!  Once again I found that feeling of belonging that I had lost years ago and I felt free.

Although I will not get everything back that cancer stole from me, I now know that kayaking can help me reclaim some of the life I had lost.  It has allowed me to connect with other survivors in a new way as we used the river to forge bonds that can’t be broken by time or distance.  Kayaking gave me renewed confidence in myself and showed me how to take back control of my life.  I know far too well that life will not go according to plan, but in spite of all of the challenges that come my way, I will always be able to look forward to the next day on the river.

Michael Burek - First Descents camp participant 




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